CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's military is considering selling its fleet of U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to another country, possibly Iran, in response to a U.S. ban on arms sales to President Hugo Chavez's government, a Venezuelan military official said Tuesday.
Gen. Alberto Muller, a senior adviser to Chavez, told The Associated Press he had recommended to the defense minister that Venezuela consider selling the 21 jets to another country. Muller said he thought it was worthwhile to consider "the feasibility of a negotiation with Iran for the sale of those planes."
The U.S. State Department, however, warned that Washington would have to sign off on any sale of the F-16s — a possibility that spokesman Sean McCormack suggested was highly unlikely.
"Without the written consent of the United States, you can't transfer these defense articles, and in this case F-16s, to a third country," McCormack told reporters in Washington.
Even before the United States announced the ban on arms sales Monday, Washington had stopped selling Venezuela sensitive upgrades for the F-16s.
Muller said officials have been considering options for replacing the F-16s for some time, since the United States has not been selling replacement parts for a year. He said the military was considering Russian Sukhoi Su-35 jet fighters, "which is the best jet fighter there is in the world right now."
Chavez has previously warned he could share the U.S.-made F-16s with Cuba and China — and look into buying new jets from Russia or China — because he said Washington was not supplying parts for the planes as agreed.
U.S. officials disputed that accusation, saying they were living up to their commitments under the deal. U.S. officials have said Venezuela is bound under the 1982 contract to consult with Washington before transferring any F-16s to another country.
"The recommendation that I'm making to the minister, and which I will make to the president at the appropriate time, is that the (F-16s) be sold to a third party because if they aren't complying with their part of the agreement, we don't have any obligation to comply with our part," Muller told the AP.
The U.S. State Department, in announcing the ban on arms sales Monday, said the measure was in response to a lack of support by Chavez's government for counterterrorism efforts.
The State Department cited Venezuela's close relations with Iran and Cuba, both of which the U.S. deems state sponsors of terrorism, saying Venezuela has developed a much closer "intelligence-sharing relationship" with Cuba and Iran.
McCormack also expressed concerns about Venezuela serving as a transit point for arms, and about alleged links between Venezuela and leftist Colombian rebels — an accusation Chavez dismisses as baseless.
Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said the U.S. ban on arms sales — which becomes effective for one year starting Oct. 1 — "is nothing new" since the U.S. government already effectively was blocking defense deals.
In a statement, Rangel called the terror-related accusations unjustified and hypocritical, particularly considering the United States' unwillingness to turn over Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA agent wanted for trial in on charges of plotting the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger plane.
"These despicable accusations are based on a futile campaign to discredit and isolate Venezuela, to destabilize its democratic government and prepare the political conditions for an attack," Venezuela's Foreign Ministry said early Tuesday.
The U.S. arms embargo signals further deterioration in relations with Venezuela, a top supplier of oil to the United States. Venezuela is moving ahead with various other defense deals despite the U.S. ban, buying transport planes from Spain, helicopters from Russia and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles that are due to arrive soon.
Venezuela originally purchased its fleet of F-16s in 1983.
Chavez has accused the United States of breaching its contract to supply parts for the planes.
U.S. officials say the contract for the planes does not require the United States to supply parts indefinitely or to upgrade the planes. U.S. officials say periodic amendments to the F-16 contract have authorized the limited sale of replacement parts in the past.
Defense analyst John Pike said it wouldn't be very practical for Iran to buy Venezuela's F-16s because it, too, would have trouble finding spare parts due to an American arms embargo.
"I can't imagine why Iran would want to buy more airplanes that it can't get more spare parts for," said Pike, director of the Virginia-based defense think tank globalsecurity.org. "I think it's basically posturing on Venezuela's part."